BÈla BartÛk: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

It was rejected in a national competition, prompting
the composer to despair of ever gaining recognition in his home country, and
this ‘failure’ deepened his earlier pessimism with regard to the
indifference with which his nation viewed his work. In 1907 he had written to
his mother: ‘With the Hungarian oxen—that is to say, the Hungarian public,
I shall not bother anymore.’

Today Bluebeard is considered one of BartÛk’s finest scores,
fraught with Gothic darkness and abundant in orchestral riches and impressions.
It is essentially a ‘static’ work and thus works well in the concert hall.
Bal·zs reduced Charles Perrault’s original ‘fairy-tale’ to just two
characters — the eponymous aristocrat and his new wife, Judith; and the
‘action’ — as the enthralled Judith appeals to her husband to reveal what
is behind the seven locked doors within the cold confines of his castle — is
fundamentally symbolic. What we witness is a psychological drama of their
relationship and an emotional probing of the Duke’s distorted, tormented

The opera thus requires singers of considerable dramatic focus and
expressive range; originally the Hungarians Andrea Mel·th and B·lint SzabÛ
were to assume the roles of the ill-fated Judith and her troubled master in
this concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by the London
Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit. In the event, both
were indisposed through illness. As Wilde might have quipped, to lose one
soloist is unlucky, but to lose two looks like carelessness, but there was
nothing unfortunate about the replacement soloists on this occasion: Hungarian
mezzo-soprano IldikÛ KomlÛsi and bass-baritone Sir Willard White.

KomlÛsi was compelling in the early scenes: Judith’s appeals, blooming
with her love for her new husband, were rich and warm, full of youthful
excitement and naÔve self-assurance. Impassioned and confident, KomlÛsi’s
Judith was certain that she could assuage the castle’s inherent pain, as
exhibited by the ‘weeping flagstones’ and ‘icy marble’: ‘Open, open!
Throw [the doors] open!/ All those locks must be unfasten’d./ Wind shall
scour them, light shall enter!’ Even as the vistas revealed behind the locked
doors became ever more troubling, and a telling note of anxious vulnerability
at times diminished the bright vocal glow, KomlÛsi’s mezzo retained an
intimation of defiant will. Singing from memory, the naturalness of her
phrasing was not surprisingly but was still persuasively engaging.

Though I am no scholar of languages, and am certainly no expert in Eastern
European vernaculars, I found Willard White’s Hungarian diction similarly
convincing (a libretto and translation was included in the programme booklet).
However, the Prologue was spoken and while this is not in itself an unusual
decision — and White presented the introductory text with characteristic
gravitas and dignity — the spoken English sat uncomfortably beside the sung
Hungarian. I’m not sure that it would not have been better to omit the
Prologue entirely, so that we were plunged immediately into the psychological
soundscape, with no sense of a narrative ‘frame’.

Bluebeard is a role White has sung many times and he perfectly embodied the
inscrutability and hauteur of the eponymous torturer, while his legato
bass-baritone both intimated a genuine sense of concern for his new wife and
insinuated the seductiveness of evil. I was reminded of Iago’s recognition
that Cassio, ‘hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly’ — it
is not that he envies Cassio his innate ‘goodness’, rather than he
recognises the absence of this quality — and no desire for it — within
himself. White inspired both horror and pity; he was magisterial but also
strangely vulnerable, and at the close, when Bluebeard addresses his former
wives, he seemed transported to a distant world, deep in his own subconscious.

Dramatic ‘development’ is enacted through the evolution and
juxtaposition of aural colours, and the RPO and Dutoit presented the imagistic
score with precision, and by turns, delicacy and penetration. Motifs such as
the dissonant minor second ‘blood motif’ — symbolic of the blood which
has stained Bluebeard’s armoury and seeped into the garden — gained
intensity through repetition.

There was some striking playing by individual sections and soloists: James
Fountain’s trumpet, when the second door was opened to reveal the armoury,
was fittingly martial and bellicose; the glistening of the riches of
Bluebeard’s treasury was beautifully evoked by the soft sweetness of flutes,
celesta and two eloquent solo violins (Duncan Riddell and Tam·s Andr·s); when
the secret garden was revealed behind the fourth door, Laurence Davies’ horn
solo possessed a Straussian depth and warmth. The strange juxtapositions of
celesta, harp and timpani made the ‘Lake of Tears’ both beautiful and

The climax that occurs with the opening of the fifth door was thunderous and
disturbing: the resounding organ (Andrew Lucas) joining the orchestra in a
resonating boom suggesting the infinite expanse and sublimity of Bluebeard’s
kingdom. But, the most unnerving moment came with the uncanny harmonic sequence
which accompanies the opening of the final, seventh door, and the release of a
silvery beam of moonlight which bathes the protagonists in its eerie shimmer.

There was a Faustian thread, as well as a Hungarian one, running through the
evening’s programme, and the RPO opened the concert with Berlioz’s
‘Hungarian March’ from the first part of the composer’s lÈgende
, La Damnation de Faust. In advance of his 1846 visit
to Pesth, Berlioz was advised by Count R·day, the intendant of the Hungarian
National Theatre, that he would find success awaiting him if he were to arrange
the national Hungarian air, ‘R·kÛczy-indulÛ’. The ‘R·kÛczi March’
had been the unofficial state anthem of Hungary
before Ferenc KˆlcseyHimnusz’ of
1823 had supplanted it; the latter remains the official national anthem to this
day. Berlioz’s arrangement was greeted with such enthusiasm and excitement
that when the composer began work on La Damnation de Faust he included
the march in the opening scene, which he set on ‘the plains of Hungary’ and
in which Faust watches troops pass by in rhythmic step to its revolutionary

The LPO began with a rousing fanfare from horns, cornets and trumpets, and
there was a buoyant spring in the step of the pizzicato strings and staccato
woodwind which accompanied the bright and breezy melody played by flutes and
clarinet. Subsequently, Dutoit did not always maintain the tension and
momentum: dynamic contrasts might have been more marked, and the imitative
fragmentation of the melody more rhythmically incisive. The dull thud of the
bass drum effected a shift of mood, intimating an approaching foe, and Dutoit
generated excitement towards the percussive conclusion, the sustained final
chord swelling as if with nationalistic pride and glory.

The ‘Byronic’ prodigy, pianist and composer Franz Liszt was the final
link in the thematic chain: Liszt composed his own ‘Faust Symphony’ and his
fifteenth Hungarian Rhapsody is based upon the
‘R·kÛczy-indulÛ’. Here, it was Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto that was
performed, a structurally inventive work in which the single long movement is
divided into six sections during which various themes evolve cyclically.
Pianist Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin joined the RPO for a performance which was
proficient but somewhat perfunctory. It’s a difficult work to bring off
persuasively: while the First Concerto has Romantic bravura, ardour and swagger
a plenty, the Second is more pensive and elevated, requiring attentive
listening from the audience, and a strong sense of direction from conductor and
soloist. Hamelin certainly had all the notes but the effortlessness of the
execution made the virtuosity seem rather routine. There was some fine solo
playing from the members of the RPO with clarinettist Katherine Lacy and lead
cellist, Tim Gill, deserving especial praise.

But, it was the compelling performance of BartÛk’s brooding masterpiece
which provided the evening’s poetry.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Hector Berlioz — ‘Rakoczi March’ from The
Damnation of Faust; Franz Liszt — Piano Concerto No.2; BÈla BartÛk
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Charles Dutoit conductor, Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin
piano, IldikÛ KomlÛsi mezzo-soprano, Williard White
bass-baritone, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Tuesday
27th January 2015.

image_description=Charles Dutoit [Photo courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra]
product_title=BÈla BartÛk: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Charles Dutoit [Photo courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra]